America had such nice plans for the weekend. Most people were getting ready for some World Series baseball, looking through Party City for that last slutty Ninja Turtle costume, maybe even spending a few hours in line for early voting. The last thing most Americans expected this Friday afternoon was a shameless unprofessional and utterly contrived “October surprise” courtesy of FBI Director James Comey. Yet here we are, with the 24-hour cable news stations in a feeding frenzy over the new investigation that is a lot more sound than legitimate fury.
What are the facts and why is this news coming out now? Here’s a quick primer:
On July 5 this past summer, Comey, a Republican who had been appointed by President Barack Obama as an appeasement measure, held a press conference about the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails. The investigation had concluded that Clinton had engaged in no wrongdoing in the treatment, sending of or deletion of her emails. Comey noted that Clinton was careless and should have been more responsible, but said that nothing she did rose to the level of a criminal investigation. This bit of editorializing, not to mention holding a press conference to end an FBI investigation, was extremely inappropriate and, according to Matthew Miller, former director of the Justice Department’s Public Affairs Office, a “gross abuse of his power.”
Why were we even hearing about Clinton’s emails? Republicans in Congress, desperate to find some smoking gun for the Benghazi, Libya, conspiracy, expanded their investigation into Clinton’s emails. They found nothing. No smoking gun. Not even a half-lit cigarette. Democrats cheered, and Republicans, led by Donald Trump, screamed that the FBI director was in Obama’s pocket.
On Friday, Comey sent a letter to eight Republican chairs of congressional committees informing them that in the last 24 hours, the FBI had found new emails that “may” be pertinent to the previous Clinton investigation, and that, therefore, he would be looking into them. No timeline for the investigation was given, no explanation of where the emails were from, no context regarding why they were just found. Most importantly, the FBI director told eight members of Congress but did not send a letter, smoke signal, Snapchat or any sort of heads-up to the White House or Obama’s staff.
What does all of this mean in practical terms? Comey is behaving like a power-mad, unprofessional political hack instead of an independent arbiter of American justice. He is clearly not in Obama’s pocket. In fact, Comey couldn’t be more out-of-pocket if he were wearing Daisy Dukes. Releasing the specter of a renewed investigation, without any new evidence, and no background context, less than 11 days before a presidential election is clearly a political act and one designed to harm the Democratic nominee. The political, as opposed to justice-driven, nature of this announcement became all the more clear as real journalists investigated this story throughout the day.
One clear example is that the emails in question are not from any device in the possession of Hillary Clinton. They are emails from a separate investigation into Anthony Weiner, the disgraced former congressman from New York and the former husband of Clinton adviser Huma Abedin.
Is it possible that Abedin and her husband exchanged some emails that may in some way have relevance to Clinton’s behavior during Benghazi or her use of private emails? Yes, that is a possibility. It is also likely that the name Hillary Clinton just came up in a document search. The FBI director making noise about reopening an investigation when there is no new evidence to drive such a provocative headline is both irresponsible and lacking in basic integrity for a public servant. What Comey has done is the equivalent of making a public announcement like, “The name Barack Obama may have come up in the Ashley Madison hack, we aren’t sure; we’ll get back to you at some point in the future.”
Surely, in the next 36 hours, there will be those arguing that Comey had no choice. That upon new emails being discovered, even from a separate investigation, he was legally obligated to inform Congress that there would be additional work on the Clinton email case.
That is simply not true. The FBI was well within its power to examine the new emails, determine if they were pertinent to the case and then inform all of the relevant actors, which should definitely have included the White House. Comey knew his "letter" to Republicans in Congress would get leaked, and he knew full well that it was a Dhalsim-level stretch to connect the name Anthony Weiner to the Clinton campaign. Such clearly partisan maneuvering is unbecoming of an FBI director, but utterly expected when the Democrats insist on appeasement appointments instead of defenders of the law.
The sloppy question to ask now is whether or not this manufactured October surprise will affect the presidential race. In the short term, the answer is yes. The polls coming out Monday will show the race tightening as enthusiastic Trump supporters are more inclined to answer the pollster calls than annoyed or dismayed Democratic voters.
However, in the end it won’t matter. Nobody in America who is really tuned into this election is going to flip from “I’m with her” to “Make America great again” because the FBI is playing politics. Those who aren’t really tuned in? They’re already halfway downtown wearing their Luke Cage and Misty Knight costumes hoping that Cleveland can take a lead in the series. Try as Comey might, this manufactured October surprise won’t supersede what most Americans already had planned.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.